Baseball survived, right? We’re all still here, correct? The world didn’t end this time (though I could write books on that subject in another sort of forum). But to read varied online message board comments of Orioles fans, one might think that the Birds didn’t make it through the Mayan apocalypse. The view is that unless something is done soon by Dan Duquette, the 2013 season will see the team regress again to the 15-year ice age of pending extinction.
October 1, 2012; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Baltimore Orioles left fielder Nate McLouth (9) at bat against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
In some measure, just about everything we write here in the off season or see written by colleagues at MASN or MLB is asking the same question: Are the Orioles better off than they were a year ago?
Another way of perhaps more fully giving a context to the question would be to phrase it this way: Since so many unusually good things happened for the Orioles last year – fortunes that could not reasonably be expected to happen again in such abundance – how can the team possibly be any better without making some definitively clear upgrades?
That is a fair question; especially since the Orioles have allowed a big piece of that success – Mark Reynolds – go away without a clear one-to-one level replacement. (A theme I may yet explore in another post is the phenomenon as to how the berated Mark Reynolds of a year ago got to be the bemoaned loss of the same fellow this year – all without dramatic numbers. In a sentence, my answer to that is that Orioles fans like hard-working nice guys who daily give their best effort, while also destroying the Yankees over a one-week period of time.)
So let’s balance this subject by laying it out on two sides of a scale – a negative and positive, stated in that order for each point:
1. Statistics – There is no way the Orioles can sustain winning record numbers of one-run games and extra innings contests. While I grant that this is unusual and even record-breaking, there is no reason to doubt that the 2013 Birds will not have high levels of success in this component of the game. The bullpen was the largest factor in producing these numbers, and the relief pitching remains intact.
2. No-name starting pitching – The Orioles have not added a needed top-tier starting pitcher to bolster what is a weak rotation. I do not buy the premise that the Orioles rotation is weak because it does not sport a widely-known star player or anchor. As Steve Melewski rightly points out in a recent MASN article, “From August 1 on, the O’s starters worked to an ERA of 3.85 through the end of the regular season, going 38-20 in that time.” The Birds will have Jason Hammel back and healthy we trust, along with reasonable expectation that Wei-Yin Chen may build upon his solid first year. The performances of Steve Johnson, Chris Tillman, and Miguel Gonzalez were not flukes in my estimation; they went out there start after start and performed at a very high level. And this does not even count the possibilities that Jake Arrieta or Zach Britton will return to strong form. And though I would assign Brian Matusz and Tommy Hunter to the bullpen, their names need to be included in this discussion. Even more, poking heads just over the horizon are Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman.
3. Missing power bat and fuzzy right side of infield – The Orioles are especially in need of a strong middle of the order power hitter, along with definition for who will be at first base (let alone second base). Though I have my doubts about the defense of Chris Davis at first, I believe him to be enough of an athlete to become more than serviceable. I also remain a big believer in Nolan Reimold, and see him as able to provide that missing bat at DH or LF (or 1B if the Orioles would take my previous advice on that!). The signing of Nate McLouth and a full year from him is a defensive upgrade, not to also mention what he certainly brings in speed to the offence beyond his hitting potential.
4. Performance – Many of the Orioles may not perform as well as last year, especially Adam Jones. I think there is as much possibility of many performing as well or better. Why should Jones not now be able to perform consistently as one of the better players in the game? One would think that Davis will do as well or better, and J.J. Hardy and Matt Wieters are more likely to hit better than to regress. Manny Machado will be with the team for the whole year. And the varied people as second base are not going to add up to a worse year than 2012. As a long-time critic of the offence hurting the team more than the pitching, I believe the prospects for an improved offensive production are the best they have been in recent memory – even without an addition through a trade or free agency.
5. There are monsters out there – Almost all other teams are doing more to improve, especially the Jays and the Red Sox. I say, “so what?” What is new about that? The Orioles beat their big bucks teams last year, including the Rangers, so just go out and beat them again. I don’t think these moves are as impressive in reality as they are on paper.
6. The world might really end – There are so many questions and uncertainties at so many positions. What? You think the Orioles are the only outfit like this? I don’t see the end of the world; rather it looks to me like a new era. I’m not just being a fan here. Read my stuff over the past several years and you’ll see I can be as much of a Debbie Downer as anyone with a keyboard and Baltimore baseball opinions. Dan Duquette and I will never have dinner together, as the guy frankly creeps me out – but so long as he makes mostly good moves with the dollars available, he can dine with others and miss out on my opinions. I think Buck is about as good as they come. We have solid pieces at LF,CF,3B,SS,C and in the bullpen … with some studs over the horizon; and the other pieces aren’t bad. I don’t think it is possible to have as many injuries in one season as happened last year – the Orioles were #1 in roster moves. This alone offsets the unusual positive circumstances from the first point. And finally, it is December; there is time for moves to be made – maybe for Saunders, LaRoche or Morse or someone not on the radar yet.
I’m a happy Orioles fan as this year ends and another begins. It is too early to call for a divisional championship or beyond, but I do know that the world is not ending for Baltimore baseball. It could, in fact, be a great year ahead.